All through this letter Paul has been writing about the law. And — as you know — he’s been writing about the law because the false teachers in Galatia were saying that sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — by keeping the law. They were saying that faith in Christ is not enough, because in order to receive eternal life in the presence of God, you need to do what the law says. Faith in Christ is not enough; you need to keep the law.
And so, Paul has been making clear that no one will be justified by keeping the law. No one will receive eternal life by trying to do what the law says, because the law cannot save. The law cannot save. In fact, the reason God gave the law in the first place was to reveal to us our sin and our guilt and our need of a Saviour. The law cannot save; the law only condemns.
And so, do you remember the images which Paul used to describe the law? The law is like a prison, because it imprisons us as sinners who deserve to be condemned. The law is a like a supervisor, with the authority to rebuke us for our shortcomings. The law is like a legal guardian which treats us as slaves and which orders us about. And then, in the passage we studied last week, he said that Hagar and her son from the Old Testament represent the law, because just as Hagar and her son were slaves, so all who rely on keeping the law are slaves to the law. The law enslaves us.
In today’s passage we discover that one of the things the false teachers were emphasising — perhaps more than anything else — was circumcision. Do you see how Paul refers to circumcision in verse 2? This is one of the things — if not the thing — which the false teachers were insisting on. They were saying that the Gentiles in Galatia needed to be circumcised in order to receive eternal life. We find the same thing in Acts 15, where some false teachers were saying that unless you’re circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.
What’s the problem? Why is Paul making such a big deal about circumcision? After all, in Acts 16, we read how Paul wanted to take Timothy with him on a missionary journey, and so Paul circumcised Timothy, because of the Jews who lived in the area. Paul circumcised Timothy. So, if Paul was prepared to circumcise Timothy, why is he making such a big deal about circumcision with the Galatians? What’s the problem?
The problem is this (and John Stott explains this very well in his little commentary on this letter): circumcision was a problem, because it represented a particular kind of religion. It represented a religion of salvation by good deeds in obedience to the law. Let me say that again: It represented a religion of salvation by good deeds in obedience to the law. But Christianity is not a religion of salvation by good deeds in obedience to the law. Christianity is a religion of salvation through faith in Christ. Salvation is not about what we do; it’s about what Christ has done for us. It’s not about relying on ourselves and the things we do in obedience to the law; it’s about relying on Christ and the things he did to reconcile us to God.
The key question is this: What are you relying on? You see, I assume that you do many good things. You’re here in church today; that’s a good thing to do. I’m sure you pray to God at home and read the Bible; those are good things to do. I’m sure you try to live a good life and to be kind to the people around you; that’s a good thing to do. You try to avoid doing evil; that’s a good thing to do. You do many good things in your life. By the key question is: What are you relying on? If you’re relying on the good things you do in order to receive eternal life, then you’re relying on the wrong thing, because no matter what good things you do, they cannot make up for your past sins and they cannot wash away your past guilt. Relying on the good things you do for salvation is the wrong thing to rely on. Instead you must rely on Christ alone. You must trust in him alone, because he laid down his life as the ransom to set sinners free from condemnation; and he shed his blood to wash and cleanse sinners from their guilt. He died for sins and he was raised to give us life. And so, you’re to rely on him. You’re to trust in him and in him alone, because he has done all things necessary to save sinners from the condemnation they deserve and to give them eternal life.
Yes, do all those good things. Come to church. Pray to God. Read your Bible. Love and serve your neighbour. Shun what’s evil. Do all those good things. But don’t rely on those things for salvation. Rely on Christ for salvation. He’s the only one who can save you.
Or to put it another way, he’s the only one who can free you. And that takes us to verse 1 of today’s passage, where Paul says:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
In what sense does Christ set sinners free?
Back in verse 13 of chapter 3 Paul wrote that Christ has redeemed us or freed us from the curse of the law. The law condemns us because we haven’t done what it requires. We’ve fallen short of keeping the law and doing what it says. It therefore condemns us as a law-breakers who deserve to be cursed or punished. But Christ has redeemed us, which means he’s freed us from the law’s condemnation, because he was condemned in our place and suffered on our behalf when he died on the cross.
Christ has freed us in the sense that he’s freed us from condemnation. However, it’s more likely that here Paul means Christ has freed us from the law as the means to receive eternal life. He’s freed the believer from having to climb his way to heaven by his good deeds. He’s freed the believer from that, because by faith in Christ, we receive the hope of everlasting life. Whoever believes in him, whoever relies on him and on his death on the cross for sinners, is pardoned and accepted by God and receives the free gift of eternal life.
So, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, because through faith in Christ, the believer is set free from the law as the means to receive eternal life. In that case — Paul says to his readers — stand firm. He means stand firm in the faith and resist every effort by the false teachers to mislead you. So, stand firm; and don’t let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Paul pictures the law as a yoke which an ox might have to carry. Or perhaps a slave might have to wear a yoke across his shoulders in order to carry water back from the well. And the yoke is heavy; and so, it’s such a relief for the slave and the ox to be allowed to take the yoke off.
Whoever believes in Christ is set free from the law as the means to receive eternal life. Instead of having to do all the law requires in order to climb up to God, we can rest in Christ and rely on all the hard work he has done on behalf of sinners. It’s as if Christ came to us and lifted the burden off our shoulders, and said to us: ‘Let me take this from you.’ And since Christ has taken from us the burden of having to keep the law, why would we ever return to the law and put ourselves under its weight once again? Why would we once again rely on the law and on keeping the law, when once we relied on Christ? It doesn’t make sense.
Verses 2 to 6
In the following verses, Paul appeals to his readers to give up relying on the law and to rely only on Christ.
And he mentions circumcision in verse 2, which I’ve already said represented for them a religion of salvation by good deeds in obedience to the law. Being circumcised would mean they were no longer relying on Christ, but were relying instead on themselves and their ability to keep the law. And once you begin to rely on yourself and your ability to keep the law, then you can’t just stop at circumcision, but you have to do everything else the law requires. That’s Paul’s point in verse 3:
every man who lets himself be circumcised … is required to obey the whole law.
The law is not a pick and mix. Remember pick and mix sweets: you could take the ones you want and leave the rest. Well, you can’t pick and mix with the law: you can’t take the laws you like and leave the rest. No, once you pick up one law and start relying on it for salvation, you have to keep all of the law. The false teachers were encouraging the Galatians to pick circumcision. But once you take up circumcision, and rely on it for salvation, you’re obligated to keep the rest of the law as well. And while you may not be tempted to pick circumcision or to rely on it today, the fact is that if you’re relying on any of your good deeds in order to receive eternal life, then you’re obligated to do everything the law requires. And that’s impossible for you, because all of us are sinners and we’re unable to keep the law perfectly.
Paul warns his readers of several things in the following verses. He warns them that if they start relying on the law, then Christ will be no value to them. That’s in verse 2. Christ will be no value to them, or he will be of no benefit to them, because Christ will only save those who rely on him. And then Paul warns his readers that those who try to be justified by keeping the law have been alienated from Christ. That’s in verse 4. Through faith, we’re united with Christ and receive from him all the benefits of his death for sinners. But if we don’t believe, then we’re cut off from Christ, which means we’re cut off from the only Saviour of the world. And Paul warns his readers that those who try to be justified by keeping the law have fallen away from grace. God’s grace refers to his kindness to those who don’t deserve it. We don’t deserve to receive eternal life, because we’re sinners, but God graciously and freely gives it to all who trust in his Son. So, you can try to earn eternal life by your good deeds and you can try to climb up to God by your hard work; or you can receive it as a free gift through faith in Christ.
So, if you rely on yourself and your own good deeds, Christ is of no benefit to you, because you’re cut off from him and from God’s free gift. But if you rely on Christ, then you’re united to the only one who can save you; and God gives you eternal life as a free gift. And so, Paul says in verse 6, by faith we eagerly await the righteousness for which we hope. Or perhaps a better translation is this:
By faith we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
And the hope of righteousness which believers are waiting for is everlasting life in the presence of God. And look: this is not something we work for; it’s something we wait for. Believers don’t have to work for the right to enter eternal life, because God gives us the right to eternal life as a free gift whenever we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
For those who trust in Christ, for those who are united with him by faith, whether a person is circumcised or uncircumcised does not make any difference whatsoever to their standing with God. When it comes to how a person is justified, the only thing that counts, the only thing that counts, is whether you’re trusting in Christ or not, whether you’re relying on him or whether you’re relying on something else.
And so, what are you relying on? That’s the key question. You’re here in church; and that’s a good thing to do. Praying is a good thing to do. Reading the Bible is a good thing to do. Bringing your offering and serving in an organisation and helping the people around you and being kind and patient and self-controlled: those are all good things to do. But if you’re relying on any of them to get you to heaven, then I must warn you that you’re relying on the wrong thing, because when it comes to being justified — pardoned and accepted by God — the only thing that counts, the only thing that counts, is faith in Christ.
You talk to a sick person who has been advised to take her medicine three times a day in order to get better. You go to visit her. How are things? Are you taking your medicine? Well, I go for a walk every day. But are you taking your medicine? I eat all my fruit and vegetables every day. But are you taking your medicine? I’m started taking these vitamin tablets every day. But are you taking your medicine? And a friend has recommended I try this special supplement. But are you taking your medicine? Do you see? If the only cure is taking the medicine, that’s what you have to take. And if the only way to be justified is by believing in Christ, then that’s what you have to do. You have to believe in him, because whoever believes in him is pardoned and accepted by God and receives the free gift of eternal life. So, instead of relying on other things, even your good deeds, will you rely on Christ alone?
Or put it this way. Imagine you’re standing at the door of heaven; and there’s an angel there who is able to open the door. And the angel asks you why he should open the door for you. What would you say? Because I went to church. Because I served the church. Because I did this good thing and that good thing? If you answer like that, then you’re relying on yourself and the things you have done; and the door will remain closed. Instead your answer must be: ‘Open the door because Christ my Saviour died to bring me to God.’
Verses 7 to 12
In verses 7 to 12, Paul talks about the false teachers. The Galatians had been running a good race: so who has cut in and is holding them back from obeying the truth: the truth which says to sinners that you must believe in Christ for salvation.
In verse 8 Paul tells his readers that what the false teachers are saying to them is not from God, who calls on sinners to believe in Christ. And in verse 9 he likens the false teaching of the false teachers to yeast which spreads through a lump of dough. And Paul’s point is that unless the Galatians resist it, the evil influence of the false teachers will contaminate the whole of the church. And in verse 10 Paul expresses his confidence that the Lord will rescue the Galatians from the danger they’re in. And he warns that those who are confusing them with their false teaching will one day pay the penalty. He means they will one day have to face the judgment of God. And nothing is hidden from God’s sight; he knows the trouble they’ve caused and the errors they’ve taught; and he will punish them unless they turn from their sin in repentance.
And verse 11 is surprising, because it seems that people have been accusing Paul of preaching circumcision as the means to receive eternal life. Perhaps, before he was converted to faith in Christ, he did teach that Gentiles must be circumcised. But not now: not since he met the Risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. And so, he rejects the accusation by asking a question:
If I’m still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted?
Whenever Paul was in the region of Galatia, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, the unbelieving Jews persecuted him and he had to leave one city after another because of the danger he faced. And he was persecuted like that, and he faced danger wherever he went, because the message of the gospel offends the natural person. Do you see how Paul mentions the offence of the cross? The message of the cross offends sinners, because the message of the cross says to sinners that they’re sinners who can do nothing to save themselves; and their only hope is to trust in Christ who died for sinners. And people don’t like that message. It offends their pride; and people would rather be praised and flattered than hear the truth that they’re sinners who need a Saviour. And so, because Paul preached the message of the cross, he was persecuted wherever he went. And it’s the same today, because whoever preaches the cross of Christ will face opposition, because the message of the cross offends human pride.
Some people are offended by Paul’s language in verse 12, where he wishes that the false teachers who preached circumcision would go ahead and emasculate themselves. But he spoke like that because he was aware of the trouble they caused, because they were teaching people to rely, not on the only Saviour of the world, but to rely on themselves. And that’s the wrong thing to rely on, because those who rely on themselves will only be condemned.
Spirit and Love
So, don’t listen to the false teachers. And don’t rely on the law as the means to receive eternal life. Rely instead on Jesus Christ, who died for sinners in order to bring them to God.
Does that mean that those who trust in Christ can do whatever they like? Does trusting in Christ give us a licence to live totally selfish and self-centred lives? The law tells us to love the Lord and to love our neighbour. So, are we to forget about that, now that we’re trusting in Christ?
I hope you know that the answer is no, we’re not to forget the law entirely and we’re not to do whatever we like. Look back to verse 5 where Paul mentions the Holy Spirit. Whoever believes in the Lord Jesus for salvation receives from God, not only pardon for sins and the hope of everlasting life, but whoever believes in the Lord Jesus also receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit works in believers to make them more and more willing and able to do God’s will and to walk in his ways. The Holy Spirit helps us to resist the temptation to sin and to live lives of obedience to God.
And then look at the end of verse 6 where Paul says the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. And what Paul means is that those who truly believe will live a life of love. And they’ll live a life of love, because the person who trusts in Christ has received the Holy Spirit to enable them to become like Christ who loved us and who gave up his life for us.
So, don’t listen to the false teachers. And don’t rely on the law as the means to receive eternal life. Rely instead on Jesus Christ, who died for sinners in order to bring them to God. And whoever believes in Christ receives the Holy Spirit to help them to live a life of love.
And so, will you rely on Christ for salvation? If you haven’t already done so, will you pray to the Lord and ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners? And will you ask him to change your life by his Spirit?
And if you’re already a believer, will you give thanks to the Lord for Christ the Saviour who gave up his life to bring you to God? And will you ask him to make you more and more willing and able to do his will so that more and more you’ll be able to live a life of love.